Areas of research interest (ARIs) were originally recommended in the 2015 Nurse Review, which argued that if government stated what it needed to know more clearly and more regularly, then it would be easier for policy-relevant research to be produced.
During our time in government, myself and Annette Boaz worked to develop these areas of research interest, mobilize experts and produce evidence syntheses and other outputs addressing them, largely in response to the COVID pandemic. As readers of this blog will know, we have learned a lot about what it takes to mobilize evidence – the hard, and often hidden labor of creating and sustaining relationships, being part of transient teams, managing group dynamics, and honing listening and diplomatic skills.
Some of the challenges we encountered include the oft-cited, cultural gap between research and policy, the relevance of evidence, and the difficulty in resourcing knowledge mobilization and evidence synthesis require systemic responses. However, one challenge, the information gap noted by Nurse, between researchers and what government departments actually want to know offered a simpler solution.
Up until September 2023, departmental ARIs were published on gov.uk, in pdf or html format. Although a good start, we felt that having all the ARIs in one searchable database would make them more interactive and accessible. So, working with Overton, we developed the new ARI database. The primary benefit of the database will be to raise awareness of ARIs (through email alerts about new ARIs) and accessibility (by holding all ARIs in one place which is easily searchable).
Researchers can now search amongst governmental ARIs to see which departments might be interested in learning about work from their disciplines and topics. They can use the identified ARIs to contact relevant departments and develop connections that can enhance the policy relevance of their work.
For funders, the database offers a way to analyze the links between funding programs, investments and government priorities. It offers opportunities for collaboration on joint areas of interest with government officials to shape future research investments.
We also realized that the database offered an opportunity to join the dots directly between the policy need and the evidence. To help that happen, we asked Overton to link the ARI database to the UKRI Gateway to Research, so that relevant UKRI-funded projects can be flagged for each ARI.
Government officials can use the database to identify opportunities for joint working across departments on shared areas of interest. Hopefully, this will contribute to reducing the duplication of R&D and knowledge exchange spend across different departments. It should facilitate prioritization by enabling departments to have greater insight into cross-government work. The database will also allow the impact of ARIs to be tracked, by finding mentions and citations of ARIs in research and policy documents.
Strategically, the database enables analysis of cross-government themes which are of relevance to multiple departments. This will help us to see where interests are shared, but where no one is taking a lead. Hopefully, more coordination within government, and between government and its stakeholders, is now a possibility.
In the next iteration of the project we will link databases of published research, which should also – although not infallibly – link officials more directly with experts. Greater access in and of itself will not remove all barriers, but it does make a more diverse set of research and experts available to policymakers.
As this database is in the public domain, the opportunity for scrutiny of governmental interests, academic activity, and research funding is greater –we see this as a positive. Not only should it help us work together more effectively, but we can begin to ask more intelligent questions about how government accesses evidence, and how universities and funders respond to issues of public importance.
Our experience with the ARIs has shown us that merely having questions in the public domain isn’t enough to galvanize evidence synthesis or mobilization. These take significant resource and expertise to do well. So, we do not see the database as a panacea or a silver bullet solving all the problems, but it does feel like a potential game changer, shining a light on previously opaque practices, opening up new kinds of conversations and promoting collaboration, over individual competition.